No. 188

OSB Logo The Old St Beghian
  Autumn 2015


Bill Affleck (SH 45-51) and Drew Herdman (SH 45-48) have produced the following article. I think Bill’s suggestion which follows is worth developing and I would be glad to hear from any OSBs who would write up an account of their ‘five years’ from 1951 onwards. Such articles would be a valuable record of the social history of the school. (Ed)

“I have been pondering on the land marks in the school's history along the way to the current situation. It occurred to me that it might be possible to reconstruct this from the memories of Old St Beghians, each recalling their time at school. The attached is such a reconstruction from the immediate post war period. If this could be combined with similar memories from subsequent, say 5-year periods we might have a document which would be, at least, interesting and possibly useful.”

“St Bees in 1945 was probably not a very different place from what it had been in the early 1900s when my father was a pupil. It was all boys and, essentially, all boarders. Dormitories and day rooms meant that there was little privacy. You arrived by train at the start of term and you left by train at the end of term. For some of the new boys this would be their first stay away from home; for others, boarding in a prep school would have prepared you. For the older, returning boys, it was of course familiar country which gave a sense of superiority. For the overwhelming majority, parents were people with whom you corresponded (by letter) and who might appear for Speech Day (sometimes in Rolls Royces or Bentleys with a chauffeur in attendance) but certainly didn’t expect and weren’t expected to visit during term time. One result of this was that we knew remarkably little about other boys’ parents, whether they were of a comparable class to our own or richer or poorer. The school was a great social leveller in this respect. In fact in quite a lot of cases the boys were the offspring of parents who were already in business and were leaders in their fields, and in many cases the boy would later follow in the father’s footsteps.

Pupils would probably have had no idea of the economics of the school at that time. They wouldn’t know what it cost their parents to put them through St Bees but, obviously, it was dramatically less than it would cost now - and that would still be true if you took the inflationary corrections out of it. We knew, dimly, that the school had been in financial trouble before the war (falling enrolment following the Great Depression) and had been bailed out by the Old Boys, but that was history and in the austere post war climate, the financial health of the school wasn’t a (visible) concern. We probably thought the school had significant income from its holdings on St Bees Head, not least from the mining which was getting underway.

You started as a fag, fetching and carrying for a prefect and, if you deserved it (and sometimes when you didn’t), being disciplined. There were intermediate levels of repression so that the lower orders didn’t get ideas above their station; your place in the hierarchy was known to both those above and below you and it was a prerequisite of a tolerably quiet life that you knew it too. In School House there were four levels, first year students were housed in Baby Dayroom and their own dormitory - cold water only. Then year two you moved into the Big Dayroom which meant that you were no longer called on to do 'fagging' and had your own cubicle. Third year you moved into Junior Studies and a couple of years later, if you were still there, into Senior Studies. Of course within any year group not all the boys were equal and some no doubt don’t have very happy memories of school; we didn’t think of it as bullying but that would probably be the label now. Then there was the business of sex. In a single-sex school some homosexual activity was inevitably a part of school life. Did some boys emerge ‘damaged’ by the experience? Perhaps, but at the time it just seemed part of the normal pattern of school life and by no means was everyone involved. The senior boys would almost certainly have preferred girls - but the supply was limited almost to the point of non-existence.

Over the six or seven years of your schooling you might progress to being a prefect and having a fag and beating the odd malefactor. There were housemasters, but the running of the houses was, in practice, left very much to the house prefects. The prefects were gods. They lived, literally and mentally, far above us lesser mortals and ruled the roost with an iron fist, not the proverbial hand. The head prefect even ruled the lesser ones. The sanctions available to the prefects were varied. The level of punishment depended somewhat on your level in the hierarchy and the level of transgression.

For example, a minor offence such as burning a prefect’s toast would earn you five runs (or a hefty smack). This meant that you had to run five times around the circumference of the house, watched by and the runs counted by the prefect who ordered the punishment. There was in the bowels of the house the boiler room where the coke-fed boiler resided which produced hot water. You could be sent there with a couple of rounds of bread and a toasting fork to produce your prefect’s toast.  As the door into the furnace was a bit on the small side there would be much shoving and pushing to get a good place but this led at times to toast being either underdone or overdone. This would lead to the five runs penalty. For somewhat graver offences you might get a hard smack on the legs or round the ear, and that was that for a minor matter. For graver offences you got a serious beating; this had overtones of a march to the scaffold. So how was it done?

The house knew you were for it, and just before turning in time you were taken down to the cellars where the boiler room and the changing rooms were. Beside the boiler room there was a drying room with a sliding door. And into this room you were put to wait. The door was shut. Silence for a few minutes then the sound of footsteps. It sounded like rugger boots on concrete, which it may well have been, they went past the door, up and down, up and down. Talk about psycho/terror. Eventually the door crashed back and you were led into the changing room. The first thing you saw was the chair - just an ordinary chair, but with its back to you. Standing in one corner was the Housemaster, who had to witness punishment, to see that it did not get really out of hand. The beater stood there with the cane in his hand. This was a split bamboo with some insulating tape at various intervals.  You were then told to bend over the back of the chair and to hold the seat with both hands; you could not see the beater as he was behind you - and he took a run at you, several steps - Step, step, step and then pain. This was repeated until the designated number of strokes was administered. Not all prefects were equally proficient at beating - but you got what you got. But, and this was a point of honour,  you never yelled, shouted or screamed no matter how it hurt -  and you just blinked away any tears too. No sign of weakness was ever to be shown. When you got to your dormitory the others were all agog. You then had to show your stripes. In a way it earned you Brownie Points, as you were seen by the younger set and your peers to be tough. In a way you were, even to yourself. Strange as it may seem people often cannot remember the offences for which they were beaten. Punishment, then and even now was not for the offence committed - but being caught at it.

Just as individuals in the school knew their place so the school collectively ‘knew its place’. St Bees was a minor public school, never in contention with the Etons and Harrows. We were, however, very definitely in the same league as Rossall or Sedbergh, Durham or King Williams, IOM and any suggestion that these were in any significant way superior to St Bees would have been seen as treasonable. The local, west Cumbrian, schools, grammar or ‘normal’ were in a league below and almost beneath contempt. The village boys were ‘wacketts’ and formal contact non-existent. The same loyalty issues were apparent within the school. We were of and for our house with an almost blind conviction that ours, be it School House, Foundation North, Foundation South, or Grindal was the best. Houses competed against each other in almost every field of activity.

By modern standards the level of creature comforts provided was meagre - but many of us would have come to school from homes devoid of central heating or unlimited hot water (weekly baths were scheduled rather than an everyday expectation and woe betide anyone who filled the bath to more than five inches depth). During all our time at school rationing was still in force so the meals served were adequate rather than inspiring. Cafeteria style feeding had not yet arrived and we sat, were served, and were made ‘truly thankful for what we received’. While from the pupils’ standpoint it might have seemed rough, from the school’s standpoint it kept the cost of supporting boarders down.

A word about health care; houses had their matrons, who were the first line for sore throats, cuts and bruises and strains - rugger produced its proper quota of injuries - and other  complaints. Although matrons were one of the more sympathetic elements of the school infrastructure, they weren’t a completely soft touch; the basic prescription was to get on with life at school. Infectious diseases, mumps, measles and the like, were a different matter. We had the Sanatorium, in Lonsdale Terrace, to which you were dispatched until the risk of infecting others passed. The ‘San’ was a great leveller in that infection was no respecter of seniority; plebs and prefects were forced to co-habit. The radio (or was it still the wireless?) provided a link with the outside world and very well remembered was a sixth former telling us that no, we couldn’t ‘bloody well listen to
Dick-****-Barton’ - perhaps the levelling wasn’t that complete!

Academic achievement was recognised but in the general perception of the boys - and most of the masters - holding a place on the rugger 1st XV was a more significant achievement than excellent High School Certificate results. These were long before the days when there was any expectation that going on to university would be seen as a normal goal; yes, some did, but very often it was a surprising discovery that someone whose reputation at school rested on his performance on the rugger field had academic potential as well. Although there was, and remains amongst Old St Beghians, a strong sporting bias the school was by no means a cultural desert; there was music (with, inevitably, inter-House competitions), drama (Gilbert and Sullivan was very much in vogue during my time), and debating. We went to the cinema in Whitehaven (I have memories of seeing Olivier’s Henry V from the extreme end of the front row) and there were 16mm film shows in Big School, not always technically trouble free (memories of an interrupted screening of ‘The Lady Vanishes’ of which it was said (T. A. Brown) that it was the film not the lady who vanished!).

In an era before ‘league tables’ it’s difficult to gauge the school’s academic performance. With ‘tri-weekly’ test results we knew where we stood in relation to our peers and if there were any expressions of concern about our competitiveness with other schools in our league, we didn’t know of them. We emerged (apparently) adequately qualified for the job market. What we did carry away from school was a certain toughness (to which the short trousers and Cumbrian weather no doubt contributed as well as the school regime) and a sense of responsibility. Basic training during National Service presented few terrors for the old St Beghian, nor, we’re told, did prison. The other thing, looking back from 2015, was the sense of rightness for the school and the way it ran. There were no advocates for change; this was the way things were; it was good enough for our predecessors and it would be good enough for those who would follow us.

That was the way it looked in 1951.”



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